First Things & Final Changes
A Short Fiction Collection

Part III

Includes Most Likely to Succeed, Dealing with Deprivation, Playing with Fire and Seniority.
Copyright 1985-95, 2011 Katherine Anne Harris. All rights reserved.

Most Likely to Succeed

Her mother had gone to school with everyone. Her dad played golf. Of course she had to be invited, and of course she had to accept.

"They're not friends of mine," the girl said when the mail came. "I only know them to say 'hi' to."

"Well, they're good people to know better," Mary Fran replied, not exactly impressed by the Reynolds but definitely in favor of them. "You go and be friendly. I deeply wish you'd be more friendly."

Mary Fran bought her a new dressy dress that same afternoon and washed the girl's old church gloves, which came out very white from drying in the sun. On the day before the party, she shopped at noon and brought home a clutch-bag, white for summer, made of something novel that the label called marshmallow. That night, the two of them attacked the girl's last-summer shoes with kitchen toothbrushes and they looked fine again once all the scuffs were polished over.

While she drove the girl across town Saturday, Mary Fran detailed for about the twentieth time just how they'd serve the tea and what to do. This go-around, she thought to add there'd probably be "tea sandwiches," teensy ones with things like cucumber and watercress inside. Cautioned that she should act like she recognized everything and liked it, the girl wanted to scream for mercy; her mom treated her as if she were four years old and not quite bright.

"And you be especially friendly to Mrs. Reynolds," Mary Fran went on, "because she's very interested in you. She asks about you every time she's in the bank."

The girl nodded and opened the door to get out, not in the best mood. It was so demeaning, being driven at her age. Besides not letting her take the Buick, since Ray took the Falcon for golf at the club, her mom had forced the girl to wear a slip, which was icky-hot from the car seat. The gloves were plain dumb; nobody'd even worn gloves to church for years before she stopped going.

Mary Fran held out her best embroidered handkerchief. "Don't forget this. And won't you wear my hat, please?"

Not on a dare, the girl thought, but she said, "It doesn't quite match." It was a stupid flowerdy thing she wouldn't be caught dead in.

"Have a good time now. I'll be back for you at straight-up four, but you call me if more than a couple of girls start leaving sooner."

The girl waved 'bye, thinking a good time was not likely. Tea, indeed; you'd think this was l954 instead of ten years later. Being ever so careful handling a china teacup and ever so careful what she said to people she barely knew ranked low among her social preferences.

The tea was for Hale McKee, to welcome her back home to Grayson for summer vacation. She was Marley Reynolds' cousin and supposedly Marley was hostess but the girl guessed it was her mom’s idea since Marley seemed almost normal. She even still attended public school, which was peculiar since her brothers Chase and Patrick hadn't ever and Hale went off last year, after ninth grade, to a private girls' academy up east.

Everybody said that Mrs. Reynolds, Mimi was her name, used to be a real beauty and she was kind of a mystery, too, because she grew up someplace else, way deep down south, and she was Catholic. Marley, who resembled her daddy, was cute in a round-nosed tawny way, kept her sandy hair cut short all year and wore plain clothes to class, although her sweaters looked softer than anyone else's except Hale's and never pilled up. Marley was much more serious than Hale, a delicate white-blonde like her mom who'd been Clare Reynolds until she married. Clare was no great student in her schooldays, either, as Mary Fran remembered, so it was no wonder Hale had bubblegum for brains. She was nice and really tried, though. Her fancy new school was supposed to be easier.

The girl didn't know much more than that about them, except of course how wealthy they were, how they got even richer every morning that cotton mill whistle shrilled from the bad part of town and how Hale and Marley always hung around with other girls who went to summer camp. Even if you didn't know them or their families from Adam, you could peg the girls who got to go to camp, just by their diving. Marley was the best at that, and at swimming. The girl was jealous, but did like watching Marley in the water at the country club sometimes, up in the day when she had to stay off in the shade, herself. Naturally Marley and Hale never had to worry about sunburn or freckles. It was as if some natural connection existed between even pigment and funds.
It would be easy to hate Marley, except the girl had to admit that Marley was a particularly good sport. She'd worked hard wanting to win the freshman and sophomore letter sweaters in English but, when the girl got them instead, Marley'd made a special point of congratulating her and saying she deserved them. From other kids in class, the girl had heard how Marley and her mom really planned last time on winning; they said Mrs. Reynolds coached Marley every afternoon for two months before the test. The girl couldn't quite think how you'd do that, since English was far too big a subject to cram. She just took each test when the day came. She held that thought and finally rang the bell.

"Hello! Come in! I'm so glad that you could come." Marley always smiled wide as you please, even with those ugly braces on. The girl's parents would have managed someway to pay for braces for her, too, but they didn't insist when she threw a fit and said she wouldn't wear them. The way the girl had it figured, they were secretly relieved.

The Reynolds house was huge, two stories, and the pattern of the living room wallpaper matched the curtains and upholstery exactly, except the background and foreground colors were reversed. The girl had never seen that effect in someone's home before, or a piano like the Reynolds' concert grand. She'd heard that Marley played. Her own piano was a beat-up upright they got used, and her parents wouldn't ever have it tuned or even get the sticky keys fixed. In sixth grade she wrote a poem called "I am the prisoner of a bad piano," which was dreadful but captured how she felt chained down because it didn't respond right or sound right. That hadn't been a big problem when she was younger, just learning, but eventually she couldn't stand it any longer and switched to flute. The year before she quit piano lessons, the girl had played last on each recital program. Everyone knew that meant she was the best of all, and those programs were printed in the newspaper, because Mrs. Lance was so well thought-of and had been teaching in Grayson forever.

All of a sudden the girl was staring right down at Marley's piano and she didn't know how she'd gotten over to it.

"Is this yours, Marley?"

Marley answered that it was, that she could move it with her when she got grown because her parents had given it specifically to her when she turned thirteen. She explained there was another one upstairs, though, so it wouldn't be like she was taking away the only piano.

The girl practically had to hold her fingers still to keep them off the keys. She wondered if it would be okay to ask to play, maybe later.

Marley petted the gleaming black lid. "I'm going to major in piano at college. I've taken lessons down in Dallas for eight years."

"You must be really good. I only took for three, and it was here in town."

"I know."

Before the girl could react to that, Marley's mother came through the hall door with stacks of glass refreshment plates and several girls in tow, transporting pieces of a very heavy-looking silver tea service. After everybody had admired everybody else's dress, which was without exception tinted like fruit sherbet or plain white for showing off a suntan, Marley told her mother she'd go get the cups and saucers from the kitchen. The girl said that she'd love to help.

The hallway was so narrow they had to walk down it Indian-file. When the girl saw why, she stopped without meaning to. Bookshelves crammed with books covered both walls from floor to ceiling.

"What a wonderful library!"

Marley giggled. "Two rooms upstairs are like this, too. My mother's books are taking up all of our wall space! Daddy says we'll have to build onto the house if she buys any more."

Mary Fran got exceptionally mad when the girl used her allowance money for books, instead of reading them from the library. She thought buying books was wasteful.

Just before the kitchen door, the hall bookshelves ended on one side. There was a little desk tucked in there and, above it, hard to see, was a painted portrait. Returning from the kitchen with a tray of cups and saucers, the girl had to have a good look at that. It was Mimi Reynolds in the picture, but how odd to have a portrait of your mother that wasn't even a wedding pose. Mimi looked twenty years old or so, with the kind of face you see on pretty cameos, not the stern ones. She wore two gardenias in the long dark hair that curled around her bare white shoulders. The girl could smell those gardenias on a night wind mixed with book dust.

"Is this really your mother?"

Marley, who'd squeezed on past with her tray, was almost to the living room. She glanced back to answer, "Um-hum. Ages ago."

"She was exquisite," the girl whispered. No one heard that but maybe Mrs. Reynolds, who was standing very near the doorway when the girl turned around. Her hair was still long and dark, but had a lot of gray in it, and she was bundly-looking in a mustard-colored knit dress with a paisley scarf around her neck.

After walking past Mrs. Reynolds with an "excuse me" and setting her tray down, the girl kept sneaking glances over that way. Mimi's features hadn't really changed of course, but her face was different now, just smart and strong. It wasn't a bit sweet, even though her creamy Delta voice always made the girl think about those Louisiana pralines just about too sugary to bite.

Hale and her mother arrived then, and Hale was looking incredibly sophisticated, at least two years older than last summer with her hair streaked in half a dozen shades of blonde. Hale squealed, threw her arms around Marley immediately and then went around hugging everyone. As far as the girl knew, Hale hadn't ever acted quite that silly before.

After all the gushing died down, they took off their gloves and had tea with milk or lemon, not both, and with cookies and those bitsy sandwiches that the girl was warned about. Nobody seemed hog-wild about green sandwich fillings although a few people pretended to be. Like everybody else, the girl finished one, which wasn't any worse than what her neighbor Hilary did with smashed bananas and peanut butter. While they were nibbling and sipping, Hale talked about her school a lot and it did sound like fun. She said she'd brought her average way up, too, without much work at all.

When the girls had finished, Mrs. Reynolds suggested that they go onto the terrace while she cleared things up. They all offered to help her first, of course, but she said no to everybody but Clare McKee.

Out back, Chase and Patrick were doing something to a sailboat, so Fleur Alford, the newspaper editor's daughter whose mother was French, led a group across the yard to watch. Thee girl waved to the boys, not to be unfriendly, but walked the other way into the shade, and Marley stayed with her. They sat down in some garden chairs at the edge of the flagstone paving, pretty near where Marley's little sister was playing on a giant trampoline. Victoria looked about eight and like her mother used to, a porcelain doll with her long, black hair shining, flopping up and down as she bounced, falling into her face when she jumped and somersaulted, streaming every which way as she did back flips and twists.

"Can you do that, too?" the girl asked Marley.

"Um-hum. But I'm nowhere near as good as Victoria. We all work on the trampoline some, since it helps our diving, but Victoria gets the most time on it because she's going to be a dancer."

"I used to think I'd like to be a dancer." The girl laughed like people do when they talk about children, also thinking how odd for trampoline-time to be rationed. "I'll bet every little girl wants that, for a while."

"Oh, Victoria's made up her mind," Marley said without an ounce of doubt or humor. "She's been studying seriously for four years."

"My goodness," the girl said and buttoned her gloves.

"Last summer, she promised to practice at least three hours a day, so she got a barre in her bedroom and mirror panels on the wall. She'll get a real studio floor put in, too, when she turns nine and makes a long-term commitment."

"A long-term commitment? How long?"

"Four years, from her ninth birthday to her thirteenth." Marley seemed like she wasn't sure whether to go on talking or not, but decided to. "Once we turn nine, we stop planning things from year to year."

"What does she have to promise, to practice for four more years?"

"That's part of it."

"And she'll get a whole new floor?"

"Um-hum. If Mother approves her plan and Vicky keeps to it, our family will completely support it with whatever equipment and classes she needs."

While Marley waited a minute again, the girl heard shrieks of laughter from the sailboat gang. She was wishing she knew how to flirt and fool around when Marley asked her, "What's your plan?"

"For when I grow up? I'd like to act."
"No, what's your plan for now? For how you spend your time? For making sure your life goes right and important things don't get put off?"

The girl shrugged, puzzled. "I don't quite see what you mean."

"Well, what book are you going to read next?"
"Gee, I don't know. I took several out of the library the other day, new plays, some poetry --"

"Are they on your reading list?"

"Unless Mr. Sloan at the desk suggests something particular, I just wander around and take whatever looks interesting."

"How do you know it'll be worth reading?"
"If it isn't, I stop or maybe skim through it."

"How much do you practice twirling every day?"

"Probably four or five hours a week. Of course it took longer when I was first learning. Why?"

"I was just wondering how majorette-ing could fit into somebody's plan. It takes up time, but it isn't something you can do all your life, like diving or tennis."

"Hey, if I only played flute, I'd have to wear a stupid band uniform in marching season," the girl giggled. She's taken up twirling purely from vanity.

While Marley considered this, she dotted a fingertip down the side of her face. "I expected you'd say it relates to performing, since you want to do that. Or that everybody needs physical exercise."

"It doesn't warrant this much thought, does it?"

"Do you practice flute a lot?"

"Just enough to keep first-chair," the girl grinned. Jeff Travis, her boyfriend until lately, was second and kept challenging.

A hot breeze showered down some feathery pink mimosa blossoms and the girl picked one up. She had a mimosa tree at her house, too, and her mom was always complaining about the mess oof its flowers and seedpods. Mary Fran also complained about her bamboo that spread out of control and the blazing wild trumpet vine that drew ants, but she never tore them out all the way.

"What are you doing about cultivating friendships?"

"Huh? If somebody's friendly, I usually try to be friendly back. Sometimes I'm friendly first, like to a new kid in class."

Marley was looking very surprised. "In our plans, we're supposed to cover everything. And how everything we're doing fits together."

All the girl could think to say back to that was, "Gosh." She spun the shaggy wad of mimosa fluff between her fingers, upside down and right side up, and thought how it belonged here even less than at home. The Reynolds' yard was mostly architecture. Besides the big stone terrace, there were brick walls, wide curving steps and brick walkways surrounding the small pad of lawn, clipped close as a putting green, that fit the trampoline. Farther back, beside the tennis court, Chase and Patrick's sailboat sat on an oblong of crushed gravel edged with brick. Even the evergreens were shaped into blocks and rounds.

"Where are you going to college?" Marley asked next.

"That, uh, depends on some things." The girl didn't want to say money, scholarships. "We still have two more years of high school."

"We decide colleges when we're thirteen, so we can do things right for getting in."

"What if you change your mind?"

"There'd have to be a really good reason for that, because it could mess up the whole plan. It might make a waste of all the time we'd spent so far. Mother says that people don't become successful by changing their minds."

"So you can't change your mind about anything?"

"Not unless we absolutely have to, because we can't be as good as we need to be at something. If that happens, the plan wasn't realistic and has to change to some extent." Marley cast a glance at the sailboat and lowered her voice to a whisper. "That actually happened to Pat. Patrick started off putting a lot of emphasis on science, thinking he'd like to do chemical research, but he began getting B's and couldn't seem to fix it. Mother was pretty put out at the waste. But now we think Pat's finally on the right track. He spends most of his effort learning about business and cultivating friends, and he's doing well at that."

Marley stared way off next, and then down at the pretty white T-strap shoe she was raking sideways across the pavement. "How come you're so darn good at stuff and you don't even have a plan?"

The girl couldn't think of anything to say back to that.

"I've heard you hardly even study."

The girl couldn't think of anything to say back to that, either.

After the longest wait yet, during which the girl studied every urn around the terrace, each one planted with a single color, blue or white, Marley spoke again. "I get one more chance to beat you. If I can't, I have to finish high school up with Hale. At her school, I can win the senior English awards and get valedictorian, too."

"In a heartbeat, I'd guess! But wouldn't you be bored to tears at a school so easy?"

"The thing is, I'm supposed to be tops in my class, because I'm academically very talented, and I'm supposed to be the best in English especially, because Mother says that English is the basis for everything scholarly in this culture."

"I thought what you really love is piano, Marley."
"Oh, I'd like to play professionally for a while, if I turn out good enough, but I don't want to spend my whole life on piano. We've decided it would put everything else too far out of balance."

"Then why major in it?"
"There aren't many authorities on music theory and history. I could always do something with that kind of knowledge. I'll do a minor in art history for the same reason, and graduate school in Europe. Scholarly research and writing are things that I could do at home. Even when I have children, I can be somebody that way, see? But to be taken seriously, I need to get the right credentials and honors. It's important to win lots of prizes while I've got a chance. I'd have some already if you weren't in my way."

"Those dumb high school letter sweaters! Come on, Marley!"

"And valedictorian. You know you're in line for it."

"Yeah. I figure that." The girl said this as modestly as she could, then went on with full expression. "I love the idea of going off to school like Hale, but to a good one. You could go someplace wonderful.How come you've stayed around here when you didn't have to, Marley?"

"Oh, sentiment mostly, or you could call it family honor. It's the scholarship for valedictorian. My granddaddy established that, you know, and we've been thinking for a long time that I could be the Reynolds to win that thing, for once. In monetary terms, the award's hardly anything and it's not like I need it, but frankly we expected it to be a cinch."

The girl bit her lip hard. "I do need it."

They stayed quiet for a while, listening to Victoria's steady thumping and the other girls off joking and giggling with Patrick and Chase. Fleur had climbed into their sailboat and she was really cutting up, doing the Dirty Jerk around a mastpole.

"Will you play something for me, Marley? I'd love to hear you play."


In the living room, Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. McKee had almost finished putting things in order.

"Thank you so much, Mrs. Reynolds," the girl said. "This afternoon has been such a nice treat, and now Marley's agreed to play piano for me, if we won't be in your way."

"How lovely of you to suggest that," Mrs. Reynolds drawled in her caramel sugar style. "Perhaps a little Chopin, Dear," she said to Marley.

"I'd rather play the Mozart now. It's so much brighter."

"Your Chopin needs the work."

Marley sat down at the piano and Mrs. Reynolds went to stand behind her, putting on half-glasses so that she could turn pages for Marley when it got to be time. The girl settled in the plump-stuffed wing chair where she'd left her weirdly soft marshmallow bag and crossed ankles correctly. The piano's tone was clear and big, as brilliant as the girl had known it would be. Every note was perfectly in tune, of course, and the pedals were completely silent when they moved. But Marley played that Chopin like a Czerny exercise. At first the girl thought Marley was just warming up, but she kept on playing and her playing never did get warm. Her tempo was right, exactly right, and Marley hardly ever hit a wrong note. She observed all the crescendoes and diminuendoes. Her staccato was crisp and the legato parts didn't have any holes in them. Marley played expertly, precisely. It just wasn't beautiful.

She didn't smile when she played, either. She didn't sell that piece a bit. Her left foot didn't tap out time, her shoulders didn't sway, her head never moved an inch. Only her hands, her right foot and her eyes had anything whatsoever to do with that music.

Marley was trained way ahead of her understanding, the girl thought, and it made her remember an article Mary Fran showed her about some little children, three years old, who were being taught somewhere up east to type. She and Mary Fran had laughed about that, since three-year-old's don't have a blessed thing they need to type, but the girl felt sad for Marley. Then Mrs. Reynolds noticed her feeling that way, and turned very mad around the eyebrows.

Marley finished up, satisfied with how few mistakes she'd made, and the girl applauded. "Boy, I wish I had your technique. You have fabulous technique, Marley." Mary Fran always said the girl could find something suitable and pleasant to say about anything, if she'd only try.

Marley grinned and Mrs. Reynolds said that she should go check on her other guests now. When Marley headed off down the hall, and Mrs. McKee with her, Mrs. Reynolds didn't waste a second.

"Why don't you play something now? I'm sure you'd like to."

"You're right, Mrs. Reynolds. I certainly would. This is such a marvelous instrument."
The girl peeled off her gloves and put them on the chair, then went to sit at the piano. In Marley's stack of sheet music and piano books, she found her last recital piece, from three years back. She considered that, then put it back. If Marley'd had to play something she really didn't want to, well then, she'd be fair and do that, too. By looking further, she found a Brahms piece that would do, or Schubert.

"I do hope you're finding something in there that you know," Mrs. Reynolds interrupted, cooing from her gorgeously coordinated sofa.

The heck with fair, the girl decided. My mind has changed. I'll play Rachmaninoff. After all, I haven't played a note for months and Marley has.

She started slowly, quietly, making sure she could recall the feel of the piece and getting used to the piano's action, tighter than what she was used to. Almost before she knew it, though, the music started flowing out all by itself. There wasn't anything to stop it, no imperfect chords, no rattly pedals and no keys she had to flip back up each time she used them. Mrs. Reynolds melted with the living room, the yard and street, the town of Grayson and the state of Texas. There was nothing else but music, everywhere.

When finally there was silence, Mrs. Reynolds came back into view, looking like she'd been shot twice and tickled. She tried to keep from laughing and she tried to keep from crying and the girl adored her for a moment because she looked so real. There was a softness to her face again, like in the portrait done before she went into management and lost the chance to change her mind.

Mrs. Reynolds stood up when she could, turned away and spun back with her mask on. "Everything comes too easily to you," she said. "I suspect that will become a problem later."

The girl kept watching Mimi's face and just a hint of the softness returned as the woman reflected. Then Mimi Reynolds went on to say that the trouble with prodigies is how they're fooled into believing they have all the time in the world.

Dealing with Deprivation

Warm houses stand within us
Sleepy angels smile in doorways
Little jeweled horses jolt by without sound
Everyone is rich and no one has money
I can love you Thank God I can love you ...

~ Kenneth Patchen

There wasn't a lot a girl could do for money. The boys could have paper routes and do lawn-mowing. Later on, they got to sack and carry groceries at the Piggly-Wiggly or ushered at the movie house. Once they had their licenses, the boys could deliver for the drugstores, and really lucky high school boys got the night and weekend jobs driving for the funeral homes at opposite ends of downtown. That was the best they could ever do, even in the summer, since the home-from-college boys took the lifeguard jobs. The funeral home boys drove ambulances and hearses, but mostly they just stood out on the front steps there, wearing Sunday suits and acting sad and adult when the girls went by dragging Main.

About the only thing a girl could do was be a carhop, and a nice girl couldn't do that. That kind of job damaged a girl's reputation, even if she did it because her daddy owned the drive-in. Mr Jackson obviously failed to grasp that when he put his Tammy and Cheryl to work toting hamburger trays for him. That he didn't know any better just went to show the principle was true. He let those girls go out with boys from the air base, too.

Girls whose people did know what was what could only babysit -- and not ever too late -- for very carefully selected young families, and they could giftwrap presents downtown during Christmas break. There weren't nearly enough giftwrapping jobs to go around, of course, but in 1965 she got one. It wasn't one of the best. Her mother lined her up a job at Marberry's and the girl almost said no but then she didn't, because her best friends' folks' had found giftwrapping spots for them, too, and the whole gang wanted to go down to Dallas for a day and spend their money together.

Most people, when they went to the dime store, went to the Kress' store in the next block, not to Marberry's. There wasn't any overwhelming reason but that was the way of it. Kress' seemed to have better light, once the remodeling brought the ceiling lower, and its jewelry department was the place to get anything engraved. Things were said to be newer and nicer because merchandise turned over faster at Kress', which at least led to the development of an element of truth in that. About the only time the girl and her mother ever went into Marberry's was when Kress's was all out of something or when they were on their way to Madelon's, just around the corner, and wanted a bag of chocolate stars for under the dryer.

Since it wasn't all that popular, Marberry's didn't need a giftwrapper full-time. The girl heard that her first day, when the manager explained she'd have to handle the candy counter and sometimes wait on other customers, too. Mr. Meeks, the girl's mother told her, was really too young for a manager's job and he never finished college, either, but he was already losing some of his hair. He combed it sideways across the top and there wasn't quite enough to cover; it was clear to the girl from this, that he was vain and none too smart.

She also found out right away that the supplies in her giftwrapping area were nowhere near up to where they should be. There were just two kinds of paper, neither one pretty. There was a gaudy Santa print for kids and the other design was merely skinny-striped like mattress ticking, red and white. Both papers crackled and she could immediately imagine how the box-corners would start poking right on through. The only bows were stiff little stick-on's -- red and white and a crazy gold that didn't go with anything -- but at least she had plenty of them. There weren't many rolls of ribbon, though, and even the tape was wrong: It wasn't the invisible. The whole thing was depressing.

First thing that happened was a little boy came in for candy. He was about ten and too fat already, but she gave him extra for his fifty cents anyway. Between then and lunch, she sold a fair amount of candy and wrapped a dozen things, generally little ones, doing the best she could with what she had.

At noon, she went across to see the giftwrappers at Blair's Ladies' Wear. They had everything they needed over there -- fancy ribbons, rolls and rolls of luscious heavy foil papers, jingle bells to tie on, green Della Robbia wreaths that felt like suede and Christmas stars you could see yourself in. It was just as nice at Like Father, Like Son, where the girls had glittery Christmas stockings, partridges in pear trees and the cutest elves holding tiny champagne glasses.

Neither Penny nor Suzette could get loose from Blair's yet and Debbie at the men's shop had already been to lunch and back, so the girl went to the bank and found her mother. They got a quick bite to eat at Anderson's Cafeteria and ran into some people to talk to. While they were finishing up their lemon pie, Adele Barrett came bouncing in, all rosy from the cold and looking like a great big Hostess Sno-Ball cupcake in her shaggy pink mohair coat. The girl had always liked Adele because she was funny and didn't much care what she said. For years and years, she'd always wanted the girl to drink half of her Tom Collins when they were all at the country club having dinner or at some kind of party. It was a shame Adele had gotten so plump, because she had a darling little doll-face. Her son Mark, the lifeguard at the club last summer, was a doll, too, but he had the body to go with the face.

After Adele got herself a tray with spaghetti and joined them, the girl was interested to hear Mark was already home from school and that he'd be at the New Year's party the Barretts were having at their house. Her mother hadn't been sure for a while whether or not to go to that, because she considered Adele's husband, Lester, a blow-hard. The girl figured that assessment might or might not be true, since Mary Fran applied the word so liberally when she described men including the girl's daddy.

The girl finished her ice-tea and thought a minute, comparing Lester and Ray. Her daddy's manners were better. Except right after he made a hole-in-one, which he'd done twice, you hardly ever heard Ray brag. He did, however, tend to talk bigger about some things than things turned out, like promising the girl an M.G. when she got her driver's license. She'd had it a year and four months already, since practically the second she turned fourteen, and there was still no car for her at all.

Last week Mary Fran got around to accepting the Barretts' invitation, so now she was asking Adele please to let her bring some dish to the party. Adele, who wasn't sure yet about the menu, promised to call up as soon as she got back from visiting her sister in Austin. She'd be heading that way late this afternoon, she said, but of course she'd be back in a few days for Christmas.

The girl excused herself so that she'd get a minute to stop in the library. Mr. Sloan, the librarian, was glad to see her. He set aside the book he said he was rereading, a volume of poems by Dylan Thomas, and told her she should read it after he got through. For in the meantime, he suggested Kenneth Patchen, so she checked him out. They had a really fine library in Grayson because of Mr. Sloan, who read all the time and knew just what to buy. The girl thanked him and wished him a merry Christmas, which he said he'd surely have but he'd be celebrating it early. He told her to run by for the Dylan Thomas book on Christmas Eve Day, when he'd have the library opened back up after his holiday trip.

Bells on a Christmas wreath jangled when the girl went through the door, which was especially nice because Mr. Sloan didn't usually decorate. The girl could see his bushy head bent down over his book again already, when she waved goodbye once more through the front window. She didn't mind at all that he failed to notice and wave back. Her mother sometimes said she thought that he was lonely, but the girl knew how it is when you really care a lot about books.

There was a customer not being waited on when she got back to Marberry's, a tall and very thin blond man who walked and talked like a farmer. The girl helped him pick out a nylon gown for his wife, the least-worst style they had, and tried politely to talk him out of buying a certain cologne called "Midnight in Paris," which the girl had known it wasn't right to get ever since she was seven or eight and took some home to Mary Fran. When she was in grade school, she’d liked using her pocket cash to buy no-occasion presents and the mistakes she made then were an education in how not to spend change.

The farmer wouldn't be persuaded to some lavender water, however; he was sure that this "Midnight in Paris" was his wife's special favorite, so what more could she do? Next he poked a long long time, choosing cheap puzzles and games for his children, two boys and a little girl, he said, and he got a sewing box for his mother and a pipe for his dad. He kept looking around to a train set and finally he decided that yes he'd get that for his youngest, even though it was fourteen ninety-five. For his daughter he liked a dresser set with red poodles on it, a comb and a brush and a hand-mirror. When he picked out a jacket for his bigger boy, the girl got him to take it in blue instead of the black he first wanted; she couldn't see putting a child into a black coat.

The farmer counted out his money to the final cent, to pay for everything, and then helped her carry the stuff back to giftwrap. Grinning big as you please around the most godawful teeth, he talked about how proud he was to have gotten all his Christmas shopping done in one fell swoop.

She put two thicknesses of paper around each box and placed all the ugly tape where she could hide it with ribbon, and she put on a lot of ribbon, too, weaving a lacy latticework to hide as much of the bad paper as she could, especially on the gifts for his wife, his mom and the little girl. Just a couple of bows made the puzzle and game packages look okay, but the coat and the train took extra-large containers. She got the idea to stick down a bunch of red bows close together in a train shape on the younger boy's present, but that coat gave her no inspiration at all. A boy his size would be too old for a white-bow snowman, so she asked the farmer what his older son liked to do. "He loves to fish," his daddy told her, so she made a giant fish all over the top of that package, its body out of white bows. She used a gold bow to make the fish's eye.

"He's gonna be crazy about that," the man smiled and he thanked her very much for making his presents so pretty.

He'd carried about half his boxes out when the girl heard old Mrs. Wainwright come in through the other side of the store and say, "Well, I'm back," to Mr. Meeks.

Mrs. Wainwright handled fabrics primarily and they were located right next door to giftwrapping. She was over there rolling up the sleeves of her ugly-flowered smock when the bony blond man loped back in. He passed by Mrs. Wainwright -- telling her "Merry Christmas" -- and she mumbled something in return. Then he took the rest of his packages from the girl with another thank-you, wished her a merry Christmas, too, and started out again.

Probably because his boots made such a clomping sound on the rubbed-raw wood of the floor, Mrs. Wainwright glanced up at him. Instantly thereafter, she looked over at the girl with an expression that was like she'd swallowed an open safety pin. "What did he buy? What did that man buy?" She gasped that, you'd have to say, and waved her arms from the elbows like windshield wipers while she hurried over and sort of threw herself into the girl's face.

"He did all his Christmas shopping here, Mrs. Wainwright. You saw about half of it. Gifts for his kids and his wife and his parents. A bunch of different things."

"What'd it all total up to?"

"About fifty dollars, not quite."

"I saw fifteen dollars' worth of ribbon and bows walkin' out that door!"

"No, uhn-unh. Not nearly that much, I don't think --"

"That's right, ya don't think, doya?"

Mrs. Wainwright spun around and started yelling for Mr. Meeks. Shrieking, more like. It was really just too low-class for words. He was too slow getting there to suit her, so pretty soon she ran off to find him, with her wispy red-dyed hair flying out of its bun.

After a little bit, Mr. Meeks came in to the girl and said he thought he'd explained how only one bow belonged on each package, two bows if the gift was more than ten dollars. He asked how many she'd been using and she figured it out, thinking through the day so far.

"Four or five, on average. It took ten, I think, to make the wreath I put on a doll box of this morning, and nine to do a Christmas tree shape on a bathrobe, but all the littler boxes only needed two or three."

He turned toward the color of grum, grape bubblegum, and told her again that she'd have to make one bow do.

She told him he ought to reconsider, since it wouldn't make a pretty present that way.

He said she had to do just like he'd told her.

She said sweetly that, if she couldn't use the bows the way she wanted to, then he'd positively have to get more ribbon and some trims.

He said she'd have to do with what she had right there, and left.

The girl went back to her stool behind the candy counter, so mad she could hardly read. She kept looking up from the pages at the shoppers and saw little girls begging for dolls that she, herself, would never have wanted near her, and their mothers all too mousy or too brassy and their brothers rough and loud and sassy or just washed out into skimpy tired little blurs.

She'd thought that she knew almost everyone who lived in and around Grayson, but she was wrong about that. To keep from going right on home, in despair at the squalor, she had to hang tightly onto the thought of those ankle-strap kid leather shoes and sable fur eyelashes she wanted to buy with her very own money down at Neiman-Marcus. Thank goodness there were some familiar faces among her candy counter customers. Adele stopped in for chocolate-covered marshmallows to eat while she was having her hair fixed before she went to see her sister. When she saw the book the girl was reading, it turned out Adele knew of Kenneth Patchen, too. She even pointed out to the girl one particularly beautiful love poem. The girl also had a visit with some kids from drama class at school, who came by for junk to have during the picture-show, since candy from the lobby cases always tasted like it died three weeks ago. Then her daddy showed up, just wanting to say hi, and he treated her to fudge. Every now and then there was a giftwrap to do, just little-bitty things that looked all right, each with one dinky bow.

The girl heard it start to rain outside and pretty soon she smelled it. Things had quietened down to nothing, so she just sat on the wooden stool, reading and smelling the rain and the chocolate until her left foot went to sleep. To wake it up, she wandered along the cosmetics aisle, where she bought herself a cherry-flavored lipstick before going over to look out the doors. It was dark outside and all the Christmas decorations strung up over Main Street were lighted. The bank and office buildings had been closed for a little while already, so nothing was open on Main but the movie theatre and stores. Since cold rain was keeping people in from evening shopping, it seemed such a shame she had to stay at Marberry's for two hours more.

Through the other door, the one facing the side street, she saw lights on only at the library and at Madelon's. The girl breathed on the glass, wrote her name in the mist and just stared. Standing there, she happened to see Adele coming out of Madelon's with one of those pleated-plastic bubble rainhats over her new hair-do. Whatever she got done surely did take long enough. The girl wondered if the effort had been remotely worth it, while Adele ran to her car and jumped in, making the whole pink Lincoln wobble. Then Mr. Sloan came out of the library, carrying a suitcase and looking all around.

While Mr. Sloan reached back inside to click the lights off and then locked the door, Adele pulled up beside him -- to say, "Merry Christmas," the girl supposed. What a surprise when Mr. Sloan stuffed his luggage into her back seat really fast and climbed in front with her even faster. Instead of coming through the Main Street intersection, they U-turned in the middle of Bower Avenue and drove off toward Highway 75.

The girl licked her cherry-flavored lips and made a mental note to tell Mary Fran about that. When she got back to her reading, she couldn't help but giggle whenever she came to a love poem, imagining shy Mr. Sloan saying words like that to pudgy Adele. A little later, some more kids she knew came by for candy to take into the night show and she got invited to a party over the weekend. She managed to kill some time deciding what to wear. At last Mary Fran came in to get her. The girl went in back to find her coat and, when she raced out front again, her mother was chatting with Mr. Meeks, actually acting friendly like she liked him.

They'd no sooner gotten into the car to go home before her mother started in on her about the ribbon and the bows. "They have a business to conduct there, Honey. Mr. Meeks asked me to re-emphasize that to you."

"Since when do you care what he thinks?"

"I mean it, you cannot be liberal with the giftwrapping materials at Marberry's."

"I'm only using bows and they have loads of bows, that's all they do have enough of. I can't see why he wants to be so stingey. Everybody else wants their stores' packages to be pretty. Have you seen the trims this year at Blair's?"

"I know. But they sell higher-priced things at Blair's, and they sell to a different type of person."

"I don't think you understand, Mom. Some of the people at Marberry's, that's all the Christmas they're getting --"

"That's unfortunate, but --"

"Mom!" the girl interrupted. "I saw a man today spend on his entire family for Christmas less than what you'd pay to buy me one nice party dress. I can't hand somebody like that a tacky package! All his love went into those little gifts. I have to make the outside special when a little boy's only going to get a dumb ratty coat. And a little girl's just going to get a dresser set, something like you'd expect from -- your cousin. You can't tell me those people don't deserve something extra!"

Talking it through that way, the girl couldn't help but get upset.

"My goodness, you are all worked up about this."

"Of course I am! I think everyone's entitled to something special at Christmas! Don't you?"

"Well, you don't have to go back to the store tomorrow, if you want to be the one who tells him that you quit. I won't do it for you. I'll look bad enough, anyway. A hundred girls would love to have that job, decent girls who follow rules and who'd be pleased to do just what they're told to."

"Maybe there are, but I'm not them! I will not be the one to -- pretend I don't know any better, not when I've got a way to make somebody's Christmas nicer!"

Her mother kept on talking, but the girl stopped listening because she was so busy thinking, I can sneak to do it. Just as long as no one's looking, I can do the nicest things with bows. They'll never miss them, they've got tons of those. Lots of times, nobody else is anywhere around but, if they are, I'll say I have some other ones to wrap ahead of yours, so will you stop by later for it please?

I can lie, like that, and sneak to do it. Somebody needs to do it.

That's the thing to do and I can do it.

When Mary Fran stopped talking, the girl just said, "You're right."

The love poem words didn't seem so awfully funny anymore.

Playing with Fire

The other girls were still afraid, so she showed them again. "Just touch either end against you anywhere, touch and then pull it away."

The girl tapped her fire baton against her legs, her arms, her shorts and blouse, exactly the way she'd been taught at twirling clinic. "See there? No matter what could possibly go wrong, the flame won't stay in contact any longer than that. You won't set your clothes on fire or burn yourself -- provided you've washed out your hairspray."

When she threw the baton to Candy Dalton, Candy reached out and caught it this time but kept her arms zombie-stiff in front while she dared a double-hand-spin and then the simplest toss, a horizontal.

"It's got funny balance," Candy complained.

"Sure. The shaft has to be extra-long and thick to stay cool, and the weighting's not great but you get used to it. C'mon, feel the fire. If I can do it, you can."

Candy whisked the flame across her knees, smiled faintly and passed the baton on to Jill Keane. Jill just took it between two fingers, yucky-bug-style, shook her head no and held it out to Claudia Moro.

"Sorry, I sprayed," Claudia admitted, backing off.

They'd all been asked not to spray today, so everyone else glowered at her. No wonder their hair looked like it was styled with an egg-beater, compared to Claudia's.

Fear and vanity, the girl thought to herself, vanity and fear. At this rate, there'd be no fire baton exhibition in the first halftime show or even the one after that. She watched while the burning baton made the rest of its rounds and was a little uplifted when Becky Grant and Penny Sawyer touched the flame the way she'd showed them. Being seniors like Candy, they had to look willing. But out of eight girls, not one -- not even Becky, who was head majorette this year -- really got a proper kick out of learning how cinchy it was to twirl fire.

Practice was almost over when the baton got back to her, but she couldn't resist resoaking its rag ends once more and lighting it up along with another one. Although the effect was largely wasted during daylight, she demonstrated double-baton tricks until the fuel ran out.

Because it was understood that she'd be head of the squad next year, the girl got to plan segments of two shows this season. Toward that end, she searched out new angles at last summer's twirling clinics and settled on fire. They'd do single-baton work initially but eventually double, with lots of tosses back and forth, half the batons in the air half the time. It would be spectacular -- and different, because Becky hadn't even bothered to take fire class, claiming the tricks weren't hard enough. Sure, high throws were out -- along with arm- and knee-rolls, pretzels and everything else that called for grabbing one baton end or the other -- but there were plenty of things you could do with hands on the shaft. And whatever you did with a fire baton looked dazzling. Her parents were impressed as all get-out, especially Ray who'd never believed she'd be a twirler at all; back when she was learning, he always said, "You'll never be able to do that. You're not coordinated." Mary Fran had her doubts, too; she liked preaching "You can do anything you set your mind to" but she didn't mean it.

After Becky called time and practice broke up, Jill approached, whispering, "Sorry I was such a wimp, but I got a bad burn once from a bathroom heater." She pointed to a scar on the calf of her leg, so the girl held out her own arm, still showing the long red grid from her fall onto a floor furnace.

"Oh!" Jill winced. "I forgot. That's really yucky. Well, you're braver than I am, then."

"Not brave. It's perfectly safe and easy."

"Well, see you Monday, then."

"Yeah," the girl answered, but she knew she'd be in the air Monday, nowhere near school. "You'll get it next week."

You'd better at least try, she thought as Jill raced to catch Becky. New to first-line, Jill had barely made it and wouldn't have her pal Becky in charge next year, telling Mr. Goddard she was doing well when she wasn't. Next year, which would be her own year, everything would be based entirely on merit. And it was going to be the Season of Fire Baton.

By the time she had her gear stowed inside Felicity Falcon, the football boys were all over the practice field. Claudia of course was down there, waving and tossing her tidy sprayed head. Brad Taylor, the captain, waved back at her. He waved to the girl, too, but she ignored him. It was bad enough what he'd said about her to his mom -- that he didn't understand how anybody could be so cute and so smart -- but what was totally unreal was how Mrs. Taylor repeated that at work and then Mary Fran, who also mistook it for a compliment, repeated it at home. When the girl explained that wasn't any praise, Mary Fran said, "If you're so smart, be smart enough to hide it."

High school boys were pathetic anyway. The girl had two boyfriends who were already in college. Mark LeClaire had noticed her in Dallas last June, when she was twirling on the S.M.U. grounds between workshop sessions, then he came to the fire-night exhibition specifically to see her. Big improvement over summer-before, when college guys didn't have anything to say to her but, "Does your mother know you smoke?" Almost every week, Mark had been taking her to plays and concerts in Dallas and Fort Worth. There was Kent, too. She'd met him in July, when he was at the local air base, learning to fly jets as a treat for being his state's best Civil Air Patrol Cadet during high school. She'd been one of the girls picked by Grayson's grand-dames to entertain those boys at two weeks of parties. Nobody else got involved as a result of that, although Debbie Dean did receive one letter afterward from Tennessee.

Kent, Richard Malcolm Kentfield IV actually, went to college in California, part-time, and had a job flying planes for an aircraft dealer. He'd been back through Grayson several times already, because his boss liked having interiors redone in Mena, Arkansas. When a plane needed fluffing up, Kent picked her up along the way. They dropped that one off and flew a finished one to Fresno, then she flew back home commmercial.

That's exactly what she'd be doing, come Monday -- flying home from California -- when Jill, that ditz, expected her in class and at practice, as usual.

The girl touched the little diamond heart she'd worn on a chain since August, when Kent gave it to her on fifteenth birthday, which was the day after he'd become her lover, the first day anybody had been her lover though not for want of three years' trying on Jeff Travis' part.

Next morning she heard Kent early, buzzing the house. It was her cue to run out, wave, jump in the car and drive to meet him at the airstrip outside town. The whole neighborhood always came out to see what was happening. Mary Fran and Ray got a charge out of that, too, and lapped it up when Kent flew them down to Dallas for the girl's birthday dinner.

This time Mary Fran drove the girl to meet Kent; otherwise her car would've had to sit while they were gone.

"You have everything you need?"

"Sure do," the girl answered, happily patting her bag stuffed with pretty clothes because Kent loved her to dress up for him. She also had something Mary Fran didn't know about: Aunt Cara's wedding ring was in her purse all wrapped in Kleenex. Cara'd been locked in the loony-bin for thirty years or more, so nobody'd miss it. All that was left of her life were some nice pieces of jewelry in Mary Fran's dressing-table, and there was a tombstone already in place for her next to Gran, bought with the last of Gran's money when she died three years ago. Spooky. It was carved and all, everything but a death-date. Just waiting.

The girl needed the ring because tonight she'd be at a hotel in New Orleans, playing like she was Kent's wife. He had business down there in the morning, looking at a plane somebody wanted to sell. Instead of flying straight-on to the West Coast, where she always stayed overnight with Kent's boss and his family, this trip they'd head south first from Mena. No point in mentioning the variation in plans to Mary Fran, who sometimes went wild over the funniest things.
At the little airfield in Sherman, they all had coffee from a machine and Kent did his charm-thing. First of all Kent told Mary Fran she looked terrific -- he wished his mom looked half that good in shorts, he grinned, and then he asked the girl if she didn't think her bangs could use trimming.

"That's just what I've been telling her," Mary Fran sighed.

Kent had the gift. No wonder her folks didn't care where he took her.

Half an hour after Mary Fran said, "You take good care of her, you hear?" the plane was sailing along on autopilot and the girl was in the back seat with Kent, making love. She'd taken to that like fire baton, which probably had to do with having no unpleasant memories about it. The first time, they never even got going. Pain was associated with seeing headlights through the front window when Mary Fran and Ray, who'd gone to a dance at the country club, came back for something they forgot. At least they said that was why. Once they took off again, she and Kent took off their clothes again and it was all heavenly. Nothing but.

Mena was a short hop so, before you knew it, it was time to dress, duck under the cool clouds back into steamy air, and then reconnect with ground in the low world. The guy who ran the airstrip there, Jack Morgan, also did interior work. Over the past few months, he and Kent had become regular chums. His wife Lena was friendly, too, and liked visiting with the girl. Their tumbledown house was right by the field and Lena usually made lunch for everybody, southern-fried something-or-other. Lena was a tall toothy gal with long straight hair, who always wore faded jeans and one of Jack's old shirts; Jack had a burr haircut and a permanent orange sunburn; and together they had three kids or four, plus a baby -- you could never quite count because they all went by running.

Kent was comfortable with anyone but, to be honest, the girl wasn't keen on the Morgans. It was such a desolate mechanical sort of life and way out in the sticks, where when you drove through the hills to town you saw people rocking on every-other porch you passed, glued like they'd be there 'til doomsday. Sometimes you actually heard Ozard retards yodeling.

"Hey, Y'all!" Jack called as Kent taxied in, jogging alongside on the tarmac, all orangey and in a sweaty flight overall that matched. Jack lifted the girl out of the plane, not that she required professional assistance, and then helped Kent tether it. "Oo-ee! Isn't she growin' up nice?" he said to Kent, who smiled and even blushed a little.

After they looked around inside the Bonanza and discussed what needed doing to it, Kent wrapped an arm around the girl's waist and they followed Jack toward the finished plane, a little Apache snazzed up with new hunter-green upholstery and carpet.

"Good work," Kent said, with his slow nod of approval.

"That's all we do here, M'buddy."

Hohohum, the girl found herself thinking.

The child-tribe swarmed past, announcing the approach of Lena and the grubby baby. "Coffee's on," she smiled, adjusting the kid on her hip.

Lena offered a lemonade instead and the girl took her up on it. The guys were talking planes, of course, and Lena was in the midst of sewing curtains, which the baby soon wadded-up and started chewing on. They were invited to stay for lunch, but the girl couldn't see any reason to linger. Kent read her signals and said they'd better head south, it looked like there might be weather later. It took forever to get gone, though. The Apache was fueled up ready to go, but Kent had to check every little thing; sometimes he acted like such an old-maid.

Once south of the mountains, he showed her more about driving the plane and the girl took the controls for a little bit, which was perfectly legal since Kent had his instructor's rating. He'd even bought her a log-book for a surprise. First thing he said before letting her fly was that she always had to look ahead for a spot she could land in, if she had to.

On other flights she'd paid attention, so flying the little plane was a breeze. All you had to do was taxi to sixty, pull back, get to altitude and aim -- then, for landing, you'd nose down, level off, slow to sixty and set it down. Takeoffs and landings were what she wanted to do.

The girl was always proud when Kent got on the radio, coming in, and knew what to say to those official strangers. That'd be the hardest part for her. Because she begged, he let her do the landing, which he called a "walkaway" -- meaning you bounced but you lived through it.

New Orleans was a lot more up her street than Mena, or for that matter any other place she'd ever gone. Last time she'd been with her parents and only twelve, so a lot of things were lost on her. Not those buildings, though, that stood like starched lace. She was excited to see them again, but whenever she leaned out the window for a better look, Kent tugged her back into the cab.

There were attractive, well-dressed people in the hotel lobby, which was large and full of flowers, and she'd remembered to slip on Cara's ring, a circle of etched platinum with diamonds. It fit perfectly.

"Well how does it feel to be Mrs. Kentfield?" Kent asked her in the elevator, after he'd registered them that way. He didn't wait for her to answer. "Might as well start getting used to it," he went on. "Only a few years more, Kitten." The plan was three years, so she'd be halfway through college and he'd be finished, with money saved. No sooner unless they had to. At times the girl thought that wouldn't be the worst idea she'd ever heard, but Kent was determinedly careful.

When he was unpacking in the room, he showed her a picture taken up in Oregon of a house like he wanted to buy someday. It was tall and grey with white shutters, saltbox-style, large but very plain -- not what she had in mind at all. "We'll have an airstrip in the back, of course," Kent said, "and a theatre for you." Oh-holy-Hannah, the girl thought, you can't just plunk down a theatre anywhere.

Kent got on the phone and confirmed his appointment for tomorrow, then they went to bed. What luxury to have a bed nobody could scare them out of, even a canopied four-poster, but this was New Orleans and she didn't want to stick around a hotel, just getting it on all day.

"C'mon, let's go out and play now."

"I have all I want to play with right here."

"You can't be serious." The girl jumped up and opened the curtains. "We've got a balcony!" she informed him. "Wow!"

Across the way there were the cutest shops and those jazz bars she knew would flood the sidewalk with their music later; you'd be wading in it as you walked along, and this trip she'd get to go inside and listen. In her black double-knit sheath dress, she could easily pass for eighteen.

"Hey, Cat," Kent was calling. "Put your robe on."

"I didn't bring one. There wasn't room."

"Then wear this." Kent tossed his robe to her. He wasn't really scolding; he was laughing about how her suitcase was so big and full, but there wasn't a robe. "Let's see what you have in here," he said, opening the bag up.

She'd brought his favorite sundress, made of rough canvasy cloth and decorated with sort of frayed-rope fringes and tassles around the full whirly skirt, her pink Jamaica-shorts-set, her white-and-yellow set with really short shorts, two dresses that he hadn't seen before, the baby-blue cotton with cap sleeves and eyelet-embroidery and a white organdy with a bare back and ruffles. There were three pretty nightgowns, too, shoes and purses to go with everything and of course her makeup, perfume, jewelry, hair stuff, several books and the black sheath. For just three days, she'd way overpacked, but Kent loved it.

For somebody thrilled by her fashion parade, he wasn't at all clothes-conscious, himself. Kent looked better in his uniform or nothing than in what he typically put on: plain dark pants with a light-colored shirt, white or blue. At night he added a jacket, a plain tie and dark socks; that was it. The girl wished he'd go in for better colors and let his hair grow out at least a bit. If he did that, he'd be really beautiful with that square jaw of his, those green eyes that could see right through you, his perfect teeth and that tawny blond hair.

After he'd picked the yellow-and-white shorts outfit for her to put on, she tried to get him to take a bubble-bath with her, but he wouldn't. He preferred to watch her bathe and then he took a shower.

Kent adored her in the very short shorts but said he'd really meant it about her bangs being too long, so they fiddled around with her fingernail-scissors, snipping, and wound up with an effect that looked more like Puck than like her.

Finally they got out of that room and she was so glad to be outside that she took off running. After buying the pralines Mary Fran wanted her to bring home, they walked by the river and got dripping hot so, on the way back, they cooled off inside some wonderful antique shops crammed with gilded things -- furniture and clocks, picture-frames, candlesticks and angels. From one of them, so crammed it was like an extra-elegant prop room, Kent bought the girl a pin shaped like a dragonfly, made out of lacy filigree with rose enamel.

When they stopped for a snack in a jungle-y courtyard wound with fuschia flowers, the girl just drank a Coke and smoked a couple of cigarettes. She'd be having dinner later and Kent liked her to stay very thin. A Grandpa-and-Grandma pair at the next table wanted to talk, and said they made the cutest little couple. To answer their questions, she and Kent made up that they were on their honeymoon, visiting from California.

"Don't be too quick to tie yourself down, Dear," the silver-haired lady told the girl with a soft pat as she was leaving.

The girl spun Cara's ring, thinking that hanging out with the Big People, pretending, was a good act. And a turn-on. Underneath the tablecloth, she ran a hand up Kent's leg and could tell that he was turned-on, too. "Fire baton," she whispered, giggling.

To get back to the hotel faster, Kent hailed a taxi and then they didn't wait on the elevator, either. They bounded up stairs two or three at a time and before you could say jack-rabbit she had nothing on but Cara's ring. They made love until they were so steamy their skins squeaked.

After cleaning up again, she put on the black dress and made up her eyes, thinking how rough it would be to face tomorrow at the Attenbroughs', where Suzy treated her like a child and threw a fit when Kent even kissed her. Clark was okay for a middle-aged bore who dressed even more conservatively than Kent did, but Suzy was seriously disapproving; she'd made it clear she thought the girl was far too young to be carrying-on the way she was, and she worried it might influence her two mall-crazed adolescents. Because Mary Fran and Ray were adamant that she couldn't sleep at Kent's apartment, she had to put up with Attenbrough House Rules. Weird how parents tried so hard to delude themselves.

In the piano bar downstairs, Kent ordered champagne and paid the man to do I Left My Heart in San Francisco, the tune played out at the base during that last-night party when Kent said he'd fallen in love with her. She'd pretty much decided to be in love with him, too, though it would make sense to get a point of comparison by checking out sex once or twice with Mark LeClaire.

Everywhere they went that night, the black dress and the ring did the trick; nobody even carded her, let alone said get out of here, Kid, you're fifteen. She just couldn't get enough of that jazz and blues, but Kent had this ironclad rule for himself: No drinking within ten hours of flying a plane. When she protested leaving, he promised they'd come back plenty of times.

Kent's meeting in the morning was early, so they were in the air by nine -- even allowing for his pre-flight rigamarole, checking every little thing. For the first couple of hours, he made her practice map-reading, picking spots to land, identifying types of clouds and making flight plans, but above the Great Salt Lake, Kent pointed off into the distance and said, "See that cut in the mountains? Aim for it."

"Where would I emergency-land out here?" she asked, taking control.

"Anywhere," he chuckled. "Water's much softer than land."

Long before they were across the waves, she was doing rolls and laughing like crazy. It was so easy. You only had to bank left or right and ride over. By the time they hit Nevada thermals, they were fighting about who got to drive -- well, not actually fighting but, if you weren't driving the thing, you got nauseous. Kent let her land for gas in Tahoe and it was better than a walkaway. He took the landing at Fresno, though, because there was a lot more traffic there.

Suzy, who'd heard Kent's T-bird crunching in her gravel driveway, came running out her front door. "Call your mother," were the first words out her mouth. "She phoned last night and was not pleased to hear where you were." Suzy Attenbrough had one of those gritty fanatic faces you see on pioneer-woman monuments.

Kent went off right away with Clark to test a plane and the girl called home in Anelle Attenbrough's bedroom, since the guest room didn't have a phone. Anelle -- thirteen, but looking younger in those braids her mother made her wear -- poked around her mess, ostensibly hunting her hairbrush, while the girl explained to Mary Fran that going to New Orleans was a last-minute deal; she said Kent got a message in Mena to go there and, yes, they did stay at a hotel but in separate rooms naturally. Her mom bought that because she wanted to.

From the twin bed opposite where the girl was sitting, Anelle whispered, "You and Kent, do you really do it?"

"What a nosy question."

"Mama always tells us certainly you don't, because you're too young and not married."

"Then listen to your mama."

"I did," Anelle giggled. "And I also heard her telling Daddy that she walked in and saw you both together in the guest room."

"I expect you didn't hear her right, Anelle."

"She said it again another time! I think Kent's really bitchin', don't you?"

"Well, I'm gonna' marry him; you know that. So why don't we go find Annette and help your mom make supper?"

Anelle nodded okay and then repeated with a sigh, "Kent's really bitchin'!"

Suzy didn't want help in the kitchen, so the twins begged to walk over to the mall and the girl went along. The kids liked hanging out with her, and she certainly had no desire to be alone in the house with Suzy. Such a silly way of life, she thought as they were walking -- so out of touch with reality. It'd be fun to yank their chain. Maybe she should've told Anelle the truth; it's not like she was a baby.

The shopping mall, even on a Sunday afternoon, was circus-bright with California kiddies and their accoutrements: skateboards, motor-scooters, fancy bikes; hot cars and dune-buggies among the older element. Anelle and Annette dragged the girl through the stores that were open and insisted on introducing her to the crowd outside. Oh tedium.

"She's the one!" a girl named Nancy squealed, then giggled. "I've heard a ton about you lately. We all think Kent's really bitchin'." When an older girl -- Denise, fifteen or sixteen -- asked if he was as good as he looked, she couldn't resist replying with a wink.

"I saw that," Anelle snipped. She didn't miss much.

"I saw that wink," Anelle said again, back at the house where they were watching sunset on the patio. "I know what it meant, too."

"What wink?" her sister puzzled.

"She winked when Denise asked if Kent was as good as he looked. They're doing it."

"You're crazy. She's only fifteen," Annette said and slammed into the house.

"My mama said you're bound to get pregnant soon, the way you're fooling around. Are you?"

"You're a nosy little monster."

"Well, are you?"

"Am I fooling around? I thought you had that figured out."

"Are you pregnant yet?"

The yard had gone dark and there was just a white porch-light, up high behind her, so the patio seemed a lot like a stage. That must've been why the girl shrugged and, "I don't know."
"You mean -- ohwow." Anelle's eyes were exploding, scandalized and thoroughly enchanted. "Does Kent --?"

"I wouldn't say anything to him unless I was sure."

Watching Anelle definitely livened up dinner, once the guys got back and Suzy served it in her sullen way. When the girl was out front telling Kent good night, Anelle was pasted to her bedroom window.

Next morning, just to see Anelle's smug fascination, the girl even pretended to be sort of sick. At seven-thirty, even before the kids left for school, Kent picked her up so they'd have time for a quickie at his apartment before her flight.

After he put her on American Air, she settled right in to read Plotinus, feeling very content and not too sad because they'd be together again in a month or so, if not sooner.

She'd arranged for Mark to meet her at Love Field, since he didn't have any classes Monday afternoon. Instead, Mary Fran was at the arrival gate; she'd taken off from work, apparently, and she was looking distraught.

"Did something happen to Mark?"

"I sent him on his way. Now don't play innocent with me. I talked to Mrs. Attenbrough this morning."

"Why in heaven's name did you call Suzy?"

"She called me. She told me what you said to her daughter. You have really done it this time."

"Oh, Mom, that was just a giggle!" the girl laughed. "Anelle's a silly kid. I only wanted to get a rise out of her."

Mary Fran didn't know whether to grin, have a fit or eat cat-food. "Is that the truth?" she finally asked.

"Word of honor." Oops, the girl thought, how far has this gone? She hadn't planned for an emergency landing, hadn't washed out the hairspray. Things might be out of control.

"You've done some outrageous things in your time, Young Lady," Mary Fran was busy fuming, "but this one takes the cake."

"You, uh, haven't said anything to --?"

Her mom snorted, "What do you think?" and snapped, "I wouldn't know" when the girl asked who else Suzy'd told.

Right after Mary Fran phoned Ray and then reported, "I'm afraid your daddy's had words with your boyfriend," the girl rang Kent from the airport.

He was in. The minute she'd said hi, he asked her point-blank. "Cat, are you pregnant?"

"Not that I know of."

"Then why's everybody telling me you probably are? Clark was here and your dad called to chew me up."

"Anelle's been telling tales." That seemed the best way to play it.

"Out of the blue?"

"I teased her a little, joking around."

"This isn't funny."

"Not at all? C'mon, this is mass hysteria! Anelle asked and 'I don't know' is a fair answer. It's true we're screwing, so why do her stupid people want to deny everything?"

"Protecting their kids. I feel that, too. I should help set an example --"

"Good Lord! Those girls should be so lucky as to have somebody like you when they're two years older."

"Two -- years?" Kent said after a beat.

"Just two. Remember?"

"Well, you're different."

"'Cause you've got the hots for me, don't you?" she purred. "You can't stay mad at me, can you?"

"Okay, okay. Straighten things out at your end and I'll do my best here. And don't scare me that way again, Kitten. I mean, if you're scared I want to know it and we'll work it out. But it isn't funny."

"Miss you," she said, and Kent answered, "Love you."

The girl dialed Mark next and he was pretty freaked out.

"Wow, what's with your mom, anyway?"

"Nothing much."

"Ah, fantastic, so can I still see you while you're in town?"

"Better not today, Mark; how about Friday? No, can't. There's a game."

"Then I'll drive up and watch you twirl, Fire-Girl."

"You may be disappointed. There won't be any fire."

"We'll see about that," Mark laughed and she closed her eyes, picturing him. He was so cute, with that long wavy black hair and those blue eyes so sharp they jabbed and his fine-pointed chin with that round dimple in it and his great clothes.


"You see, your sins will catch up with you," Walter Musgrave gloated as he slid across his desk a most important-looking envelope. He'd expressed the tense wrong. Now was when the girl needed his help.

She picked up the letter he'd detailed with such glee, grinning so fiercely that his blobby grey nothing face almost had a shape and focus. The document had obviously made his day. After years and years of waiting, Musgrave had her. It was vastly worse than last month. Sure she'd hated losing the head-majorette spot for smoking in a band hall practice room, but she fixed them, too; her dropping band for art meant the school simultaneously lost its best twirler, best flutist and only person who could make the piccolo do more than squeak. This time, though, it was a scholarship at issue. For her to move on from the finals and be a National Merit Scholar, she had to have an official recommendation from her high school. It was a mere rubberstamp thing, supposed to be, and any normal principal would play along, if only for the school's reputation. Nobody else in her class had made it past semi's. But Musgrave was perfectly happy to miss out completely this year, in order to make her miss out. Of course she was mad enough to bite the ears off mice, but didn't say anything. There'd be no point in begging, and she wouldn't give him the satisfaction, either. There'd been bad blood between them ever since she was eleven, because he ran the junior high, too, and then some fools promoted him.

Just for good measure, he even told her as she was leaving to cut her bangs or not bother coming back tomorrow.

Her best friend Daniel, bless him, was still waiting outside; he hadn't gone on to lunch without her and now it was too late to go. Not that she felt like eating. "Mary Fran'll have a cow," Daniel groaned after hearing what happened. By then they were sitting on the breezeway outside art class, facing a little autumn-colored woodland that separated the school from the running track and practice fields.

The girl shook her head. "She'll probably be on his side."

"You didn't read this yet, did you?" Daniel said while scanning through the letter.

She shook her head again. "He described it in full."

"Not quite! Your principal or counselor can recommend you --"

"Really?" There was hope yet, maybe, of going to a major university, someplace strong in drama, not to the cheap state college close by. "But the counselor's brand-new this year; he doesn't know me from Adam, Daniel."

"He can see from your records what kind of student you are." Daniel was pulling her up from the steps, so the girl dusted off her black tights and ran in with him. Her safety-pin necklaces, long than her skirt was, swung around her knees.

"I'll tell Miss North where you are," he said outside the Honors English IV room, and squeezed her hand for luck.

The counselor's secretary said it shouldn't be much longer before Mr. Giles was free, but the girl wasn't worried. Even if she came in very late, Miss North wouldn't care. After being in her class for Honors English III last year, the girl had an exceptional relationship with Miss North. It was evident to everyone that she was teacher's pet. When she was busy writing something, she could ignore the classwork; all she had to do was turn in whatever she'd done, instead. Best of all, Miss North would let her stay in the room when there was a required school assembly she didn't want to bother with. Every door had to be locked, so Miss North would just lock her in, which was really going out on a limb.

Miss North understood about love, too, and never gave the girl grief about making up what she'd missed when traveling with Kent -- Richard Malcolm Kentfield IV, actually. She always came back with a note saying she'd been sick, but after a year almost everybody knew better. Despite Mary Fran's admonitions, it was hard to resist telling friends where she'd been and about learning to fly and pretending at hotels to be Kent's wife and making love in the cloudy back seat of a plane on autopilot, with cool meringue foaming through the open windows. Mary Fran and Ray never tried to keep her from going, which she and Daniel figured was because they were afraid she'd leave for good; it'd be easy.

The last man Miss North was in love with had been a pilot who crashed in the war when she was fairly old, past thirty. Her first fiance, who didn't fly, was killed, too, in the earlier war when Miss North was just a kid. Miss North never actually talked about what happened; it was something else that everybody knew, though only from hearing it once. People respected Miss North too much to gossip the way they did as a rule. Even Mary Fran never said a bad word -- only that Miss North was a wonderful teacher, a genuine lady and so pretty for sixty-some, dainty as a little bird.

Gossip being what it was in Grayson, half the school referred to the girl as Miss Mile-High and probably the truth about her trips had gotten back to Mr. Musgrave, making him hate her even more than he already did for writing dirty stories in junior high, necking with Jeff Travis under band jackets on bus trips, dancing wild at parties, smoking and wearing short skirts and long bangs. He was such a Church-of-Christ that it was fun to shock him. One day he asked the girl and her friend Debbie Dean what they wanted to be when they grew up and they both managed to say together with straight faces, "A hooker." Deb knew how to cut loose. Her mom kept cheap dishes around to smash for therapy.

When Mr. Giles called her in, the girl explained that she needed a few nice lines written about her school record, which he looked at and admired. Unfortunately he also wanted to look at the National Merit letter and asked her why she didn't get her recommendation from Mr. Musgrave.

Better not to lie, so she admitted Mr. Musgrave didn't like her. Mr. Giles seemed like an accommodating guy, so she swallowed her pride and begged when he began to dither and blither about not knowing her personally. She couldn't break him down, though, or get it through his skull that it simply wouldn't work for her to go back to Mr. Musgrave or ask her parents to prevail on him. Since Mr. Giles only kept making useless suggestions and she kept getting more upset, and then he wanted to call her mother, the girl grabbed up her letter and her books, slammed her cap on hard and left.

"He's spineless, petrified to run afoul of Walter Musgrave," Miss North snapped in the hallway, where the girl had called her by tapping the door's little window. "That Walter Musgrave!" she fumed with an expression the girl had never seen before. Behind her upswept frames, icy pink, Miss North's pale blue eyes went dark with ferocity while the soft bow of her top lip thinned taut across her teeth. "The cruelty of it! What a woeful abuse of authority! This is no acceptable way to punish a student, as I would gladly state to his face. I'm off to see to this, M'dear," she said and under her white but up-to-date flip hairdo, Miss North's face settled back into propriety, except for a stubborn jut of her chin.

Ater watching her fragile, normally soft-spoken teacher march away, an avenging angel braced for battle -- one deadly weapon in fluttering violet silk, all ninety or so pounds of her -- the girl went to wash her face and fix her makeup. Carla Webb was in the bathroom, wrestling with a broken zipper. She yanked her fuzzy sweater down fast, but not before it was apparent why her skirt had popped. "Don't tell anybody," Carla said, dragging stubby red fingernails through her cap of mousy hair and looking very scared. She was only a sophomore.

The girl promised not to say a word and gave Carla a couple of safety pins off the long necklace she'd made.

Miss North was still gone from the classroom and typical pandemonium prevailed around the west row, where Eddie Hillis was spouting sick jokes to anyone who'd listen. Daniel and Jeff sat in front of loud Eddie, giggling, and behind him Peter Hammond snickered a little. Too cool to raise a ruckus, he clearly dug it when other people did. Peter had made National Merit semi's and it was okay he didn't get farther since his folks were rich. Peter and Daniel always shut up when Miss North was talking and Jeff generally stopped clowning then, too, but Eddie was incorrigible.

To be away from their silliness and close to the windows, the girl preferred the east side. Between the acting-up row and her serious row were two more lines of desks holding barely distinguishable people she thought of as filler, like beans in chili. She looked across the beans now at Jeff's mint-struck profile. God, he was handsome. Smart and entertaining, too. She still had a soft spot in herheart for him; he was the first guy she practically went to bed with and they'd gone steady for more than a year. In the two years since they broke up because she didn't feel quite ready to screw, Jeff had been dating Carla.

"We're supposed to be reading Hamlet, second act," Suzette Terry told her. By glancing around, she'd already deduced that, but she said thanks and opened the book for the hell of it. This was a play she knew backward and forward from doing "Ophelia" at drama meets. Of course a lot of other people did that scene, too, but she knew how to psych them: She'd get to the competition room early, draw the wildest things all over the chalkboard and act extremely strange. "There's another 'Ophelia' in here," girls would say when they read the listing board by the doorway; then they'd look in and say, "And this one's really mad."

In a hurry, Miss North came back in, glared Eddie into silence and said, "Please continue reading," then motioned for the girl to join her up front.

"He doesn't know what to say," she whispered with a just-perceptible sneer. "I'll compose it unless you'd rather." They decided to collaborate and each wrote a glowing paragraph about the girl's accomplishments and future prospects, which Miss North combined onto a sheet of school letterhead before she flitted out again.

Daniel, who could figure what was going on, looked as happy as they were when Miss North scooted right back, brandishing a signed letter. After class, he had to pick the girl up and whirl her around, then dared to pick up Miss North. This was the sort of thing anybody could get away with doing to DeeDee Curtis, the speech and drama teacher who was only twenty-four and so wild about the debate coach she'd even cruise his house at night with students in the car.

"Set me down at once," Miss North insisted, but she was willing to dance for a minute in a ring.

"How'd you do it?" they clamored to know.

"I informed Ben Giles that he was simply not going to abet Walter Musgrave in doing something so wrong, or he and his misguided superior would have to reckon with me and, I daresay, the School Board. He grasped the seriousness of my intention, I believe."

"Won't Mr. Musgrave be furious at you?"

"Quite surely he is but, if we should have hard words, I shall welcome the discussion and schedule another with our administrative officials. Now hurry on to your next classes, M'dears."

"Thank you," the girl said with more force than she'd ever said it.

"Happy to help," Miss North chirped, airy as fluff from a cottonwood tree. She was both tree and bird, somehow. She knew how to be her own resting-place, sure and safe, but she didn't turn into it.

"She has the seniority," Mary Fran said when she heard about the day's events, a slightly expurgated version. "This close to retirement, she doesn't have to kowtow to anybody." Wishing she could've seen the look on Walter Musgrave's face when he found out Rachel North went around him, she actually laughed and told the girl he'd been a pain in the rearend, even when they went to school together. This reaction was altogether out of character for Mary Fran, from whom the girl had frankly expected the you-deserved-the-worst-but-I'm-glad-it-worked-out lecture.

Her daddy was equally tickled by Miss North's coup. Over lasagne the girl made because her mom did the most appalling things to food, Ray and Mary Fran raved on about Miss North -- how she took the bull by the horns and showed the cow how to eat the cabbage. The girl enjoyed idiom and often made notes, but didn't dwell tonight on her parents' turns of phrase. She was seeing how their conversation ran like kids praising some bigger kid's great prank, some trick too gutsy for them to play. Were grownups like kids that way, less afraid as they got older? Her gran, when she was living, had the same kind of certainty as Miss North's, the kind that went with being free and letting other people be, too. But there were old people who didn't. Some got crabbier and crabbier, and their lives got smaller and smaller.

While the girl was trimming her bangs a bit in front of the bathroom mirror, she thought again about trees and birds and how Musgrave was lost inside his tree, which was his weird ballbreaking religion. Religiosity, that is. He'd never fly again, if he ever did at all, she was sure of it. Not being that way, not hiding in your tree until you grow bark, has maybe less to do with age than with trusting life, or at least trusting yourself to get through it. Her parents didn't trust life much, from being hard-up kids in the Depression. Perhaps because Miss North and Gran were older then and not dependent, they learned they could depend on themselves to scrape through all kinds of hard times. Or perhaps it was just the old cliche about how liberating it was to lose everything. Whatever prompted it, they got good at handling things in a high kind of way, without cheating emotionally. No matter what they lost, they hung onto their honor, their will and their cheerfulness. No matter what hurt or threatened to, they kept their eyes open and their hearts open and kept flying.

What would she have done if Miss North hadn't saved her ass today? Well, the girl considered, she could've appealed to the superintendent of schools; she knew his daughter Joanie and Mary Fran would've helped. Or maybe letters from some teachers would've been enough, if she said she wasn't well-acquainted with her principal or counselor. Unless she absolutely rolled over and played dead, she wouldn't have had to kiss that scholarship goodbye. In one way or another, she would've demonstrated beyond a doubt that Walter Musgrave wasn't dealing with a child. She was, after all, sixteen years old now and a senior.

It was only a couple of months ago but seemed so distant and dumb already, what she did on her birthday: She'd spent the day in bed crying, thinking you were still a child at fifteen and anything special you did was extra-special, but now it would all be expected. That was simply the way of it, she recognized now, and no good hiding; still, it was a sweet luxury to escape the effort one more time and Miss North deserved heaps of credit. Spreading word of her triumph all over school tomorrow would be fun, and a huge slap in the face to Mean Musgrave.

Getting ready to phone Kent with the good news, she put on her prettiest fall dress -- cocoa-brown linen with a wide white collar that tied into a bow -- because he always wanted to hear her describe what she was wearing. Kent took a great interest in her clothes, not like Jeff who was so vain he got cross when she dolled up and looked better than he did. Besides giving Kent the fashion report, she'd be going out with Daniel later to the picture-show. Even though it was a school night, her parents didn't mind because of the special occasion.

It was a celebration night all right, for the scholarship and for one final mess cleared up by magic. As the girl thought about this, of course she thought about Jeff again, and how he'd have to marry that super-simp Carla. She'd be the last person in the world to say Jeff's sins caught up with him but something did. How lucky she'd been by comparison. Sheer unadulterated luck, and she'd better not push it, let her come through all those murky willful days and nights intact, without making any bed so far that she didn't want to lie in. Kent's clean-cut resolute face flickered by in her head, and a little guilt with it. He was ever-so-careful with her always, but there'd been a couple of others, nobody important.

When she spoke with him, Kent said, "I'm so proud of you, Kitten," and promised to send her something beautiful. They talked again about her choosing a university in California, which would be a lot closer to him and good for her major.

She took up that matter next with Mary Fran and Ray, explaining, "I can go anywhere now; there'll be plenty of money."

"Not for your freshman year. She's still be too young to go far off, isn't she, Ray?" Mary Fran didn't leave him time to answer. "Until you're eighteen, it's our say-so."

"But you let me travel now, and even last year!"

"Only with Kent looking after you. That's very different from living on your own --"

"I need to got to one coast or the other, where the acting is."

"You'll have to forget that for a while --"

"You can't do this to me!"

"T.C.U. is far enough away and you liked their theatre summer-school. Now that you can afford to go there instead of North Texas State, it's settled."

"Will you at least think it over?"

"We'd also like for you to start considering a worthwhile major subject. Theatre would be fine to minor in, but you won't make a living that way, unless you teach it. Why not major in education? You'd be a good English teacher, too."

"I don't want to be a teacher."

"You think the world and all of Rachel North --"

"But I know what I want to do!"

"You think you do, Sugar, but it'd be smart to think again. You've got scads of time to make your mind up."

While Mary Fran popped another lemon drop into her mouth, Ray jumped in. "Seems to me you ought to consider studying journalism. You're doing fine work with that school newspaper. Lew Alford came in for tires the other day and said he'd hire you in a minute."

"I don't want to write for the stupid Grayson Tribune."

"You might end up editor."

"Big fucking deal, Daddy."

"Don't you be talking that way, not in this house." Mary Fran was reaching out to slap her, so the girl backed away.

"What do you know about colleges, anyway? You never went!" she screamed. "I am old enough and smart enough to decide what I want, and I don't want Miss North's life or Lew Alford's life -- and certainly not your life! I don't want any kind of a small-town life! I fucking well already know what I want to do, get it?"

She scrambled out the front door and down the steps in the dark, not taking time to turn on the porch light because Mary Fran and Ray were right behind her. In tempo with her running, I know what I want to do, I know what I want to do pounded out in her brain and she was halfway to her gran's house before she stopped for breath and realized she didn't want to go there. Gran's house was noplace to go; she'd been dead for four years.

Since she was pretty close to DeeDee's apartment, the girl figured she'd stop in and call Daniel for a ride -- but, whoops, there was his car and he was inside at DeeDee's. So was Jeff, without Carla, and that intriguing Peter Hammond was sprawled out across the Indian-printed bedspread, smoking something that smelled interesting. They were all guys except for DeeDee and a new kid from California, Laurel Fairhaven, who wore ankle-length dresses, pink granny-glasses and no tan; she wasn't the surfer-girl type at all. Turned out they'd been there since school let out, rehearsing some scenes, and DeeDee'd been mixing up strawberry daiquiris which tasted really far-out, Laurel said, so the girl took a sip and agreed totally.

Everybody was extremely sympathetic when she told them she simply could not bear the thought of two more whole years over which Mary Fran and Ray held sway. Not because they knew a damn thing, but only because they had the seniority.

She might just run away to Kent this minute, well tomorrow, she said privately to Daniel, off in a corner while DeeDee was making more drinks. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, though, it hit her that Kent was so responsible he'd probably make her turn right around and come back. He had their lives all mapped and scheduled. Besides, she did have to finish school to get the scholarship and she wanted the scholarship but what good was it going to do her anyhow if she couldn't use it like she wanted to? It was no use trying to talk things over or think too much now because of the extra-loud music, great Rolling Stones music that was making her dance while Peter was eying her across the room and Laurel was passing her the pipe again and she didn't know what she might do.